Getting older is a process of realizing that the things you thought were transgressive were the same things everyone else was doing at your age.
One year, I quit my consulting job without a plan to follow. I spent the next four months in different shades of sobriety, ate a lot of cheap food, and attended too many parties. I felt free. After twenty-two years of behaving as expected, I began instead to follow each whim as it formed. While my friends were settling into the second year of post-college adulthood and ambling toward respectable careers, I ran from all responsibility. No relationships, small savings, and little sleep. Rather than rot my brain in exchange for a regular paycheck, I read Pynchon, Deleuze, and Zizek before heading out each night. Pretentious, you might say, but I still learned more than I would have from another year’s worth of spreadsheets.
Serious work in the American style, the kind where you toiled upward of sixty hours each week, didn’t make sense to me, and quitting was the only way I could think of to avoid that. There had to be a way to make a living without selling all of my living hours to a company, I figured, but I wasn’t sure what it was yet. “So brave!” gasped my girlfriends, who admired my disregard for status, stability, and money. They made me feel that I was doing the right thing, and that I had to succeed. I was their champion for liberated living, I thought.
Soon, my living room became a tiny court of fellow electively unemployed friends. One Wednesday, as four of us sat tripping in my air-conditioned apartment, everything seemed to dance around perfection. There was no furniture left in the room, leaving space for several yards of blank butcher block paper to unroll across the floor. We took turns choosing which churning and sparkling songs to play on the speakers, and each of us was occupied separately while remaining in the same space. As one friend made complex drawings across the thin paper, I watched and wrote. Another friend read, while the fourth sat staring at the brick wall in front of her. As the bookish friend began to read out loud, the artist drew her interpretation of what he quoted. She had never read those words before, but her drawings rendered their complex philosophy perfectly. Was this how it should be, I wrote? Creative spirits swirling into collaborative moments before receding into self-reflection again. Why doesn’t everyone live like this? I still feel nostalgic for days like that; No attempt to recreate that experience has caught fire.
If you had asked at the time whether I thought I was being transgressive, I would have said yes. Friends either marveled at my brave aimlessness, or fretted over whether I was going through a breakdown. I kept them in tension. Though I felt more confident than I ever have, part of me worried what I would do if my savings ran out. No one in my family would have enough money to buoy me, and the thought of moving home mortified me. But unlike most people of my age and socioeconomic background, I sensed that my resume and degree would get me work when I really needed it.
When I got bored of where I was living, I packed up and went on a road trip before moving to a new city. I had no income waiting for when I got there, but I did at least find an apartment. My hazy plan for self-sustenance in my new home revolved around an income I hoped to cobble from several part-time jobs. Friends might have admired my elective unemployment and unplanned move, but it didn’t feel like bravery to me. I fantasized about the life lived electric, about transforming myself into a circuit through which unplanned pleasures would flow easily. But that’s not what I chose to do that summer. It was a strategic abandonment of society’s expectations, one that wasn’t meant to last forever.
Sometime during that roadtrip, as I barreled across rainy southern roads alone in a borrowed car, anxiety found me and begged me to slow down. There were limits to my indulgence, and I couldn’t drive fast enough to escape them. Though I didn’t resume work until my total assets hit a perilous $60 low, I also took care not to accrue any debt that I wasn’t able to pay off shortly. Getting a full time job right after landing in my new home helped. Forget being free, I was hungry, and I wanted to have enough money to eat something other than beans and eggs once in a while. My summer of irresponsibility seemed like it was part of something bigger, at first. If everyone acted like my friends and I did, we told each other, the world would be a better place. More peaceful, less greedy, more pleasurable. We never acknowledged what a luxury it was to even make that statement. All of us were well-educated, and none of us were addicted to anything harder than coffee and cigarettes. Some of us came from rich families, and all had at least one place they could call home if all else failed. No family members staked their livelihood on income we provided. Easy, unencumbered living; We could go anywhere.
A friend, one who works for the government but enjoys an occasional night of E and techno, asked me if I thought “enjoying oneself” and “having fun” were becoming transgressive acts. She spoke the word “transgressive” with a special awe, implying that transgression was the highest achievement. It’s a valid question now that being busy all of the time is the norm. Even in leisure time, people tweet and meet and make connections that can contribute to self-advancement. Maybe, then, the simple act of relaxing, partying, or going for a night of drinking is transgressive. There’s a long history of pleasure, inebriation, and rebellion going hand in hand. In an era where education is so highly valued, destroying rather than nurturing precious brain cells is rebellious. But is dropping acid still rebellious when you’re twenty-something and working a 9-to-5? Nowadays, that behavior speaks more to youth, education, and privilege. Drug use, even if it is illegal, is popular amongst my college educated friends because we are smart enough to understand that psychedelic dabbling won’t kill you, in spite of what D.A.R.E. might have preached. Binge drinking, even though it can be addictive, is common enough that those who don’t partake put themselves at risk of ridicule. Getting “fucked up” does not make one transgressive, not for those who spend their sober time steadily climbing a prescribed career ladder. You are always being watched, by your friends and your employers. Yes, the latter expect you to behave where they can see you, but the former set an example of constant fun and of pictures documenting it. We should try to think independently, we should work to act out when we can, but we should recognize that if we’re not catching grief for the ways in which we rebel, then perhaps we’re not there yet.
The world today is made of tiny sects, each holding their own internally consistent norms and beliefs and expectations, all cordoned off by social media and inactivity. We don’t go outside enough, we don’t have random encounters with enough strangers. When we do, we already expect them to be different from us. I don’t think that I, or my peers, are the ones who can truly answer what transgression is. We live in liberal cities where all forms of rebellion and self-expression have been normalized. Though you might stop to look at a man in fishnet tights and a leather vest, he won’t cause any trouble in most places. Aesthetic choices, lifestyle and clothing changes, don’t count, and that includes your preferences in fun. Leisure is a luxury, not a transgressive act, and not everyone can afford to enjoy it. In times that expect us to be concerned with our own personal brand and the expression of our ego across myriad social networks, rebellion may have to occur in a more communal site.